Carnival Ready Or Not, This is the Body You’re Getting
Carnival celebrations are an immense part of Caribbean cultural traditions both on the islands and in our diaspora. Each festival is embedded with its own individual histories, characters, and customs. Before discussing one of the most widely renowned aesthetic parts of playing mas, I must also acknowledge that carnival’s history is foregrounded in the spirit of emancipation and enslaved African resistance. While it may all appear to be scantily clad costumes and gyrating on social media, these fetes are important to chronicles of and homages to our ancestors.
Getting “Carnival Ready”
Earlier this year, my friends and I decided to play in Vincy Mas 2019 in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. This would be both my first time on the Eastern Caribbean island and my first time playing mas on a whole. To say I was excited was an understatement, but that very excitement also incited trepidation and anxiety. I willingly signed up to be the most publicly naked I’ve ever been since birth and I did not feel carnival ready.
For whatever reason, even in the Caribbean, “carnival ready” still translates to somewhat unrealistic standards. Slim waist. Thick thighs. Voluptuous in every sense yet still slender. I, however, would describe myself as having two out of the four. Being thick has always been “in,” just selectively in the right places. For anyone who doesn’t meet the Western Coca Cola bottle canon, it is easy to think of how crash diets, excruciating gym time, or even plastic surgery could be a quick fix.
I, too, felt insecure about my body, whether my worries were visible or not. I’ve been in a winding relationship with bettering my health since last year, especially when it comes to the gym. There are times when I’m really consistent. And there are times when my gym bag has been flung into my car for weeks, met each day with false promises that “today will be the day.”
As carnival approached, I decided I needed to get it seriously together. I was worried about the pictures, the fact that I’d be standing next to women of various sizes and shapes, and I refused to let my insecurities hold me back from enjoying the festivities. I created an exercise regimen detailed with specific drills and mandated that I work out at least five times a week. At one point, I read it takes twenty-one days to form a habit and forced myself to go to the gym for three weeks straight. It was painful, to say the least. I changed the way I was eating and completely eradicated white starches from my diet. I must have had dreams about rice the way that hurt me, Jah know. I even skipped out on excess sweets and drank more water.
All of this sounds good, but it was sometimes agonizing. It is hard to work through self-love when you are simultaneously trying to change things about your body. I felt guilty a lot. Guilty for not going for the gym, even on the days I was seriously tired. Guilty for wanting a treat. Guilty for side-eyeing the fried chicken at the work potluck knowing it would taste delicious, but the thought of the calories literally incinerated the enjoyment from my tongue. It was sad feeling deprived and even worse, I felt ungrateful for directing so much hatred to this beautiful, healthy body that carried me through so much in life.
At some point, I rationed that my goal was to be healthy; it was after all one of my 2019 resolutions. I ultimately had to accept that not only were society’s preconceived beauty standards impossible to achieve, but they were also not what I wanted for myself. I wrote at the start of the year that I wanted to create a consistently healthy lifestyle, and flat stomachs and scale readings are not necessarily health indicators. Healthy for me meant eating cleaner, less processed foods, regular exercise, and feeling strong. Being healthy also meant positive self-talk and training my mind to love the skin that I’m in.
Body Positivity Playing Mas
Sure enough, the day arrived. I was actually more concerned with making sure my costume was secure than how I looked in a sea of melanin, feathers, and rhinestones. Size, nor age, deterred women from celebrating in the deeply liberating and spiritual tradition.
Carnival, at large, has not been known for being the most body-positive, especially when certain bands and band launches exclude plus-size women from their costumes and debut events. The tides have slowly been changing through the work of particular online and on-the-ground communities. In Cuba, Willy y Sus Voluminosas is a troupe made of exclusively plus-size women. Nadelle Lewis’ #EveryBODYPlayAhMas and Yishaa Persaud’s Curvy Carnival International have initiated digital communities for curvy women to showcase and celebrate their bodies at carnival.
On one hand, I am thankful for the motivation playing mas had to get my health on track. Though I definitely hated it, exercise has become one of my most critical releases. That 21-day habit trick actually worked (imagine my surprise) and I genuinely feel the need to get out and get active most days of the week. However, I find it crucial that we emphasize self-love, body autonomy, and resistance during fete season, especially because these annual festivals are in homage to our ancestors’ and their bodies which were legally not their own. Their dreams and resistance live on within us and we should not limit, dictate, or body-shame individuals who use mas to take back their bodies and celebrate positive self-image in the very way our ancestors did.
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